In Cuba I met a retired surgeon and professor who received merely 20 dollars a month, surely not enough to live on. And he was one of the privileged ones. He had the good fortune to receive regular remittance payments from his son who lives in Miami. Remittances, chiefly from the United States, are estimated to be at least $3 billion a year, a significant share of the Cuban economy. Many other Cubans are not as lucky. “Life is very tough, but I’m lucky I have a son who helps me out with money transfers,” the surgeon said. “Otherwise I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know how Cubans without relatives abroad manage day to day.”
In any case, it is clear that Cuba´s economy is in dire straits. Its growth and investment levels fall far short of government targets. Some changes are undeniable and everyone I spoke with viewed them as positive. But several expressed concern that a more profound transformation in the economic system was crucial merely to maintain the status quo, let alone achieve any significant progress. The sprinkling of small businesses is not able to absorb those no longer on state coffers. There is some investment, from China, Brazil, Spain and elsewhere, but not enough. Capital is scare, and sorely needed to jumpstart the economy. And any infusion of capital would have to be accompanied by lifting of the myriad restrictions and controls on small entrepreneurs. The question is whether the government will overcome its suspicions of the private sector. “Whatever the official statistics, there just aren’t enough jobs here. The economy has stalled,” said one foreign ambassador I spoke to. “That is why so many Cubans, especially younger Cubans, are figuring out how to go elsewhere.”
Of course, it is impossible to know Raul Castro´s thinking and what convinced him to accept, however grudgingly, the path towards normalization with the United States, but it is not far-fetched to conclude that his decision was largely pragmatic and driven by economic necessity. Castro could also see the writing on the wall in Venezuela, which has provided a huge oil subsidy to Cuba for the last dozen years but is now in an unrelenting downward spiral.
Restoring diplomatic ties and opening the way for increased commercial opportunities with the United States may not be answer and will certainly not deliver results quickly, but the step is bound to gradually result in more U.S. trade, cooperation and communication. As several Cubans and foreign diplomats told me, most important is that, with the policy shift, Washington is sending a strong message worldwide to engage economically and politically with Cuba.
Many are hoping, especially with the announced thaw, that 2015 will be the year when internet access in Cuba will be significantly expanded. Today the access, though growing a bit, is still limited, and there is an unmistakable appetite, especially young Cubans, for easier and wider access—to join the rest of the world. Whether the government is now prepared to try to satisfy such a yearning is unclear. For all of Cuba’s economic experimentation—not to mention its cultural vitality, reflected in music and art—political control remains absolute. For a government committed to political continuity, unchecked communications could well create some anxiety. They could also bring some risks and heightened stirrings for political opening.
In my all too brief six-day stay in Havana, I was struck by the sheer volume of space for open discussion, including, I was told, a marked increase in blogs, about the country´s current situation and challenges. There are dissidents and human rights defenders, fierce critics of the government, but no organized opposition to speak of. Negotiations between the European Union and Cuba on a broad agreement recently hit a snag on human rights questions. The church has offered a space for some dialogue but there appears to be renewed tensions with the government.
A promising initiative, Cuba Posible, was launched last October and seeks to perform a moderating role and serve as a bridge between the government and constructive, alternative voices in the wider society. The project is focusing on three priorities; Cuba’s economic reforms, integration with Latin America, and relations with the United States.
On the final priority—indeed, on all three—this week´s announcement marks a breakthrough. I was invited to Cuba by the foreign ministry’s Institute of International Relations for a three-day conference on Cuba’s relations with the United States. On the last day, when the news broke just before noon, all of the presentations that had been made by the Cuban speakers and the U.S. Cubanologists who participated were rendered pretty much irrelevant. During the discussions, I didn’t hear anyone mention that normalization of bilateral relations was even a remote possibility over at least the next several years.
For those of us who have long advocated for a more engaged U.S. approach towards Cuba, it is wise to keep exuberance in check. There is uncertainty about what normalization will actually mean, and political moves, both in Washington and Havana, could easily complicate matters. As President Obama said, in a phrase that resonated with many Cubans I spoke to here, “No es facil.”
Indeed, we are entering new, unexplored, and virtually unknown territories. Nobody can say with confidence where Cuba is likely to end up. Other experiences worldwide may offer some hints, but Cuba seems destined to chart its own particular, probably gradual, course. These are exciting times. but there are enormous uncertainties. Obama is right: It won’t be easy.
By Michael Shifter, who is President of the Inter-American Dialogue and an Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.